‘Cautious’ euthanasia bill has loopholes big enough to drive a truck through

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PHOTO: Kendall Henderson

A couple of weeks ago, a cross-party group of NSW MPs released a consultation draft of legislation which would allow both euthanasia and assisted suicide. On the day it was released, one of the members of the cross-party group, Nationals MP Trevor Khan, described the bill as “cautious” and said that it contained a “a range of safeguards to meet the inevitable criticisms” that it would inevitably face from euthanasia opponents.

With all due respect to Mr Khan, I think this is one of the most unsafe pieces of legislation I have ever seen – and that’s saying something.

There is much to point out when it comes to the bill’s flaws, and I will devote a future column in more specific detail when (or if) the public is allowed to have its say on this matter.

The bill insists that medical practitioners involved in the decision-making, including mental health professionals, are determined to be independent if they are not a “close relative” of the person seeking to die.

According to the bill, a “close relative” is limited to parents, guardians or children, spouses (married or de facto) and siblings (including half-siblings and step siblings) meaning that a “close” relative is, for the most part, a close biological relation.

But it completely ignores others who could have significant influence. For example, it would do nothing to prevent a grandchild or son- or daughter-in-law from providing the medical or psychological assessment of a person requesting death.

Secondly, it does little to ensure that the person requesting death is objectively suffering. All that is required is that a terminally ill patient over 25 years be experiencing suffering which is unacceptable to them.

The suffering need not be physical, and the measure of whether or not it is ‘unbearable’ belongs to the individual and no one else. Additionally, the patient has the right to refuse a cure or an effective treatment and opt for death instead.

So, a patient need not have any visible symptoms; indeed, it appears that even the anguish which occurs from the diagnosis of a terminal illness would be sufficient to qualify a person for death.

For this reason, the “safeguard” of “unbearable suffering” is meaningless, and therefore only a cosmetic inclusion to make the bill appear more restrictive than it is. A more honest bill would exclude it altogether.

Alarmingly, the bill allows a patient to nominate a non-medical professional to administer the deadly drug to them. The only requirement is that this person be over the age of 18. Unlike other assisted dying legislation, this bill would make not only doctors, but ordinary people (likely a relative or close friend of the patient), into killers.

The reason this is so dangerous is because there is no oversight on ‘nominated’ individuals. There is not even a restriction on whether they are able to benefit financially from the person’s death.

There is a supposed “safeguard” in the bill which allows a patient to retract their request at any time and in any manner, but only requires a medical practitioner to record that the request was withdrawn. But what if the patient’s change of mind is not communicated to the practitioner, but rather to their “nominated individual”?

Imagine an elderly woman diagnosed with a terminal illness but who, like many Australians, is receiving care at home. She qualifies for assisted suicide, and signs a form nominating her son to administer the lethal drug to her at a time of her choosing.

The drugs are prescribed and provided to her but, some weeks later, she changes her mind. She tells her son, but he is not obliged to tell anyone about this.

He decides to administer the drug anyway, and the forms provide him with the legal “right” to do so. The supposedly “safe” legislation therefore does nothing to prevent this situation and indeed, by giving the power to kill to ordinary Australians, actually makes it a real possibility.

Finally, while there is an ability in the legislation for the decision to be challenged on the basis that the person was not of sound mind or was under duress or for some other reason, the challenge can only be made by a close relative.

There is no right for a person who is not a close relative to raise the alarm, so if a close friend or next-door neighbour notices something is amiss, they cannot do anything about it. Surely a “safe” system would not limit the people who are able to seek a review.

I’m generally of the opinion that euthanasia legislation can never be safe. Some people disagree, and I’m happy to argue the point. But regardless of what you think, let me assure you that you can drive a truck through the loopholes in this bill. It must be opposed.